A Beer Island in the Middle of the Atlantic
The name of the business was perfect: Santo Graal. The best beer bar in all of the Azores is located at the very edge of the capital city’s commercial district, and the “Irish Pub and Beer Sanctuary” is aptly named, “Holy Grail.” A traveler to this autonomous region of Portugal doesn’t expect to find great beer, but with its cellar of 235 beers from Belgium, England, France and Germany, Santo Graal truly has a beer drinker’s ale for whatever ails in a part of the world where quality beer simply doesn’t exist.
Many beer-drinking Americans may find it hard to believe that some European nations are still awaiting their own Ken Grossman, someone to create a successful brewery that will lead drinkers to a beer Valhalla. Finding a leader for the modern beer movement in the Azores comes down to a handful of entrepreneurial-minded homebrewers whose nascent efforts are part of an exceptionally small beer scene. On mainland Portugal, there are only a half-dozen newly formed breweries that are actually producing beer for retail sale, with another two dozen breweries in the planning stages. In Lisbon, there is a natural demand for flavorful beers from the many European travelers who expect to drink more than mass-produced lagers. However, in the Azores, the supply precedes the demand, and it’s all due to the audacity of one man, Bruno Filipe Ferreira Corvelo, Santo Graal’s sole proprietor.
Where in the world? And can I get a beer here?
The Autonomous Region of the Azores (in Portuguese, Região Autónoma dos Açores) is a nine-island archipelago located about three-quarters the way between North America and Europe (think Iceland, but farther south). Settled in the 15th century and claimed as part of Portugal, the Azores are volcanic and tropical with an economy based mainly on agriculture and tourism. The eastern-most island of São Miguel is home to roughly half the chain’s 250,000 residents. The largest city and administrative capital, Ponta Delgada, is located on the southern end of the island with a large port that accommodates cruise ships in the warmer months (temperatures range from winter lows in the mid-50s F to summertime highs in the low-80s F).
Ponta Delgada also is home to the only commercial brewery in all the Azores, Fábrica Cervejas e Refrigerantes João de Melo Abreu, which brews the local Especial along with a Munich Helles, an overly malty dunkelweizen and a line of sodas. The company prides itself on “Tradition and Quality Since 1893”: The tradition is that of standard German-style pilsners common to the Iberian Peninsula; the quality has arguably deteriorated in recent decades after various financing options and an expansion plan fell apart. A quick tour of the brewery reveals pallets of brown bottles that may date back 20 years. However, before June 2014, when Santo Graal launched, a beer drinker on the Azores was pretty much limited to Melo Abreu’s beers or the mainland Portugal equivalents of Super Bock and Sagres (not to be confused with Sagra of Spain).
As with Spain and Portugal proper, the main selling point for these local beers is the selling point: Especial can be found for €1(about $1.25, depending on the exchange rate) on draft and for less than that by the bottle. Most of the tourist crowd drinks the local or European wines imported from the continent. There is also a thriving liquor industry, creating rumlike booze from the pineapple and passion fruit that grow extensively in the Azores. Santo Graal opened into this environment, hoping to offer a superior (and far more expensive) alternative to the native drinking scene.
From Computer Guru to Publican
Bruno Corvelo, 30, says he has a very “American” sensibility, with regards to a capitalistic approach to his businesses.. Having studied information technology at the university, he simply wasn’t finding his calling. During a time in 2011 when he was out of work, he decided to open a bar in his native Catholic-dominated homeland. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he decided to name it “Ponto G,” or “G-spot.” The upstairs bar caters to a young—one might venture, “hipster”—crowd that largely likes to party on the weekend. During his frequent travels, Corvelo discovered just how much he loved good beer and was disappointed that there was nowhere in the Azores to buy the kind of beer he liked to drink: Belgian IPAs for the most part.
“We had no imported beers in Azores,” he laments, “And I like to drink beer. So, I thought, ‘Why not open another bar focused on good beers?’ ”
In just six months’ time, Santo Graal has become a standout among beer bars in all of Portugal, offering one of the largest selections of ales and lager—235 rotating bottles with several additional draft lines—and ranking him in the top 10 of Portuguese bars based on beer variety. His beers include Belgian heavyweights like La Trappe and Chimay, alongside Germans from Erdinger and specialty French brewers, such as Brasserie Grain d’ Orge. Corvelo is in the process of expanding the hop-heavy part of his beer menu with a full lineup of the United Kingdom’s BrewDog. The bar’s food menu emphasizes tapas: various low-priced, hearty foods—including the restaurant’s own version of a Blooming Onion—ranging in price from €1-5.
And cheap food may be a loss leader for Santo Graal: The Belgian beers come with very Belgian-esque prices, typically €8 for a 250 mL bottle up to €22 for a 750 mL bottle (roughly $10-$28). Even the foreign clientele are apt to go for the 1-liter pours of Erdinger Fischer’s Hell that sells for a relatively inexpensive €6. Much of the price is due to shipping costs (by boat) and higher taxes: Corvelo pays 23 percent to the Portugal government but can only charge 18 percent in the autonomous republic, meaning he has to wait for a quarterly tax refund to recoup the difference. Yet he remains undaunted and certain he can sell the higher-priced beers to the public.
“I am trying to create my own market,” Corvelo admits. “I made this bar thinking about the tourism, but it’s not enough for winter. I think we need to educate people [about quality beer]. This is a small place, so it’s not hard to get people to come and try a beer. When someone comes into my bar and says they don’t like beer, I say, ‘I have 235 beers; I will find you something you like.’”
As for Portuguese beer? Corvelo is a vocal opponent of the native Melo Abreu, noting quality issues. He also is a savvy businessman who has agreed to a deal with Super Bock to pay for placement as the bar’s “exclusive Portuguese beer provider.” The extra money helps get him through the slow months and gives him some breathing room in getting the locals to try him out.
“Craft beer is not a big part of our culture, but lots of people know these beers. We travel a lot. I’ve had beer in Belgium, in Germany, in America. I’m trying to reach as many people as I can.” During a recent winter festival, his bar was packed. However, many nights his staff members outnumber the clientele, and they are still serving more English speakers than Azorean natives. But his challenges are typical of what most newly opened businesses face, only that Santo Graal’s competition currently is nonexistent.
The Future of Beer in the Azores
Around the same time Corvelo opened Santo Graal, he began to homebrew with an “older gentleman,” who is part of a small group of men, “four or five guys,” who have the nation’s only homebrew club. He bought all his equipment from the mainland and currently brews 30 liters every two weeks, which he sometimes will give away at the bar (like at U.S. bars, the sale of homebrew is prohibited). As with many other beginning homebrewers, learning the proper beer styles and how to maintain consistency in brewing are the first steps, but Corvelo is ready to engage in another Azorean pastime: grabbing the bull by the horns (the no-kill bullfights are legend in the Azores and a popular summertime tourist attraction). Among his goals for 2015 is the desire to host the island’s first-ever beer festival this coming Aug. 7, International Beer Day. He’s hoping to rally his fellow homebrewers to pull off a small but significant event.
A larger and more profound undertaking will be with his homebrew partner who now is considering a partnership with Corvelo to open a brewery. The silent partner working behind the scenes will help run day-to-day operations so that Corvelo can continue to bring in more beer drinkers via his bars. So how will the clever entrepreneur top the names of G-Spot and Holy Grail? His hopeful venture will be called Excomungada, Excommunicated. He already is working on a stout recipe to go along with his beloved IPA for a planned end-of-2015 launch.
Whether Excomungada comes to fruition, the future looks bright for a man with a Sierra-Nevada-like dream and a desire to convert more of the parishioners of wine and mass beer drinkers. Perhaps because Corvelo sees the bigger picture. While he is cautiously enthusiastic about the future of locally produced beer in the Azores, he is fiercely loyal to his homeland. His final plea isn’t to patronize him but rather to come to the islands. “We need people,” he emphasizes. “We need tourists. We need the people I see in the streets of Lisbon when I visit. It’s OK if they don’t come to my bar, but come to Azores!”
Astrid Cook is a Brooklyn-based beer journalist, screenwriter and author of fiction.